Top 5: Stage to Screen

Why do great plays so often flounder on film? What makes Amadeus better than Mamma Mia? Enter JAMIE MATHIESON.

adaptation Alan Bennett Amadeus cat on a hot tin roof culture elizabeth taylor Film Frank Langella frost nixon mamma mia mark kermode Meryl Streep Michael Sheen Mozart Pierce Brosnan Ron Howard Tennessee Williams The History Boys Theatre top 5

As Steven Spielberg’s War Horse charges to the top of the box office, The Tab looks at where some of cinema’s most famous stage to screen adaptations got it right – and wrong.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Standing ovation: Location, location, location.
Booed offstage: Oh dear God, the cast.

The leader of the West End’s pack of rabid ‘catalogue’ musicals, juddering from one hit to the next like your college dad in Cindies, Mamma Mia! is my Nana’s favourite film of all time. But if only the director had spent a bit less time finding the shimmeriest bits of the Mediterranean, and a bit more finding actors who can sing. The likes of Pierce Brosnan mumble and growl their way through seventies classics like a teachers’ Karaoke night at your school. Critic Mark Kermode compared Meryl Streep’s rendition of The Winner Takes It All to Peter Sellers’ classic piss-take of Lawrence Olivier. You just can’t fake being able to sing.


Frost/Nixon (2008)

Standing ovation: Ah, that’s what the seventies looked like.
Booed offstage: Enter realism. Exit drama.

Peter Morgan’s depiction of the interviews that broke Nixon and gave David Frost his break retained its cast for a movie that put us straight into the 70s, its costume wardrobe borrowed direct from Life on Mars. But while its original home, London’s tiny Donmar Warehouse,  provided the perfect venue for a show about tension, where every bead of sweat could be scrutinised, on screen it’s a classic case of ‘show, don’t tell’. However much we hear that Michael Sheen is worried, he never really seems it. Because on the screen, he’s removed from us, in a different world of dodgy haircuts, whereas on stage we can see the whites of his eyes.


The History Boys (2006)

Standing ovation: The original cast.
Booed offstage:
The happy(ish) ending.

In The History Boys Alan Bennett assaults his targets – among others, the Welsh, Loughborough University, and all women – with the kind of withering contempt and snobbery only a national treasure can muster. But director Nicholas Hytner rescued what could easily have been seen as plain self-indulgence, and the film’s producers understood what was right: they kept the director, kept the cast, and jettisoned much of the script. Sadly, they went too far, and misrepresented the totally conceited ending of the original play, in which the multi-millionaire Alan Bennett gives a semi-autobiographical character a sad ending as a miserable loner.


Amadeus (1984)

Standing ovation: Oh, what music!
Booed offstage: Too many scenes.

Amadeus, which few people thought was filmable, is exquisite, forever defaming Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s supposed rival. Its success lies in doing what cannot be done in the theatre: staging Mozart’s operas within the film, and using Mozart’s music on the soundtrack. How could the film not be captivating? Well, for the first hour. But film just can’t take its time the way theatre can. In a theatre, silence can speak louder than words, and a pause can hold our attention. In a cinema, everyone starts wondering what they’re having for tea. Many stage adaptations fall short because they follow the lengthy structure of the original show. If your film has to have an intermission, you’re missing the point.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Standing ovation: Sexual tension? Get me Elizabeth Taylor!
Booed offstage: Didn’t this used to be good?

They don’t make them like this anymore. Seriously, they don’t, and a good thing too. Tennesee Williams’ masterpiece, all set in one room, is shot largely through a couple of cameras on a single set, like a particularly tense episode of EastEnders (you know, the special ones with only two characters). The film lasts 108 minutes. As many of us will remember from AS Level coursework, this is a long, long play – and they’ve cut all the good bits out. A modern adaptation would be three hours long and star Jennifer Aniston. Hmmm. Maybe things didn’t used to be so bad.